Thursday, April 23, 2020

Stay at home, vote at home -- April 23, 2020 column


As a few states bow to pressure to reopen businesses, medical professionals warn COVID-19 is sticking around and could get much worse.

The disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has claimed nearly as many lives as the Vietnam War, likely will surge this fall and winter during the regular flu season. Now is the time to plan for safe, secure elections in November.

In-person voting can be dangerous during a pandemic. In Wisconsin, at least six voters and a poll worker appear to have contracted COVID-19 during the state’s April 7 election, when voters, many without masks, stood in line for hours to cast ballots.

And in Florida at least two poll workers tested positive after that state’s primary in March.

A majority of poll workers in the 2016 and 2018 elections were 61 and older, a high-risk category for death from COVID-19.

Virginia is among nine states that have loosened restrictions on absentee voting, at least for the summer primaries. States are evaluating how to allow the November elections to proceed without jeopardizing public health. In Virginia, voters will be able to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse starting with the November general election.

Norman Rockwell’s image notwithstanding, in-person voting on Election Day has been in decline. In the 2016 presidential election, 57.2 million voters – two in five – cast their ballots absentee, early or by mail, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

While states set the rules for state and local elections, Congress has authority over federal elections.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon have introduced a bill to help states expand early in-person voting and absentee vote-by-mail during the pandemic. The bill has 25 Democratic cosponsors, including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but no Republican senators are on board.

Voting by mail is not a way-out, fringe idea. Five states, including red-state Utah, conduct elections by mail. Others are Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. 

Almost no cases of election fraud have been discovered.

Mail-in voting does require an efficient postal service. Typically, voters receive ballots in the mail, which they return by mail, at designated locations or drop boxes. States track ballots with bar codes and through the postal service and have harsh penalties for voter fraud.

The main way states detect voter fraud is by identity verification, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which supports mail-in voting.

In Washington state, election officials compare every signature on every ballot to make sure it matches the one on the voter registration record.

Clearly, setting up a mail-in voting system that has voters’ confidence takes thought and time, but it can be done.

A majority of voters – 58% -- approve of changing election laws permanently so everyone can cast ballots by mail, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Tuesday found. Another 39% oppose permanent change, but one-fourth of that group said mail-in voting should be allowed this November.

The idea is most popular with Democrats – with 82% in favor – and independents (61%).

Among Republicans, only 31% support it. That probably reflects President Donald Trump’s strenuous opposition to mail-in voting. He calls mail-in voting corrupt and horrible.

More to the point, he has asserted that mail-in voting, “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” although he cited no evidence Democrats fare better with mail-in voting. Analysts say there isn’t any.

Voters may remember Trump repeatedly insisted during the 2016 campaign that Democrats were rigging the election – until the moment he won.

And he’s at it again. Just the other day, he sent out a fundraising appeal saying the Democrats are trying to “steal” the election.

It’s wrong for the president, any president, to undermine the electoral process, along with other American institutions.

Trump himself voted absentee by mail in the Florida primary. A reporter asked how he reconciles his mail-in voting with his opposition to it for other people.

“Because I’m allowed to,” he said, adding that it was different when he did it because he was out of the state.

That kind of flawed reasoning makes no sense in the best of times and won’t work in the time of a pandemic. Voting is a civic duty. It should not be life-threatening.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


  1. This is well-reasoned and well written, as usual. Thank you!